Commentary

It Happens Generationally

  • by April 12, 2002
The Wall Street Journal, to cries of anguish among some of its devoted readers, launched in four-color last week. Also last week, Knowledge Networks/Statistical Research released a study documenting that one-third of children ages 8 to 17 say the Internet is the medium they would choose if they could only have one, beating television and the telephone. These milestones have much in common and much to offer those of us who toil away in Internet land waiting for the days of wine and roses. Together, these items reflect on how media makes progress. It happens generationally.

The Journal’s move to four-color comes 20 years after USA Today broke the four-color barrier in newspapers in September 1982. After all these years and all the other newspapers that long ago elected to print in four-color, I doubt many in the USA Today newsroom felt triumphant when the Journal’s new format debuted. Why bother? At this point, who cares? But I couldn’t resist a small measure of inner delight. I sold advertising for USA Today in the 80s and I can report to you it was hard (particularly versus the Journal!) It was against the grain. It was uncommon. I learned about the pervasive influence of the media establishment, which was sharply critical of the Nation’s Newspaper and highly suspicious of the change.

Side-by-side with the Wall Street Journal’s announcement came the news that children prefer the Internet. The term “early adopter” applies well and often to the younger generation, which seems able to discern progress from among the choices that get set in front of it. As I recall it was the same with USA Today, which did well on college campuses with students that recognized it’s incremental value as a way to stay in touch with news from home.

Today’s young, early adopters are tomorrow’s media leaders, buyers and sellers and our eventual success awaits their arrival on the scene. So it was with Television, cable TV, FM radio and color newspapers. So it will be with the Internet. It takes time and it takes, fundamentally, a change in control in the workforce.

My 16-year-old son is certainly one of those that would prefer the Internet to TV on a desert island. And why not? The Internet offers so much more. Perhaps he will choose to pursue an advertising career like his father. If he does, and he spends at least a few years on the agency side, as I would encourage him to do, he will recommend and buy the Internet. In the process, he will rely on tools that were developed well before him, but, mostly, he will rely on personal recognition and experience. His client, at least the Assistant Brand Manager on the other side, will agree with his recommendation.

The influence of the next generation – arguably the first All-Internet generation - is not far away. I was at work in New York City when I was 21, five short years away for my 16-year-old son. We should not despair, therefore, over the wait between generations. The next generation is practically upon us.

We should, however, think in terms of years, not weeks or months until the Internet assumes its full and rightful place on the media flowchart. If we plan merely for the recovery that lies right around the corner we may be disappointed again and, worse, we may discount the long-term value proposition of the medium as we have done too many times already, most notably with click-through rates. This is not about instant gratification, for buyer or seller.

This is the message that reached me this week taking into account the change at the Wall Street Journal and the research from Knowledge Networks/Statistical Research. Media change is seismic and the result of continuous long-term activity. Accordingly, time is on the side of the Internet (though, perhaps, not all Internet companies). It is not the same for the present media establishment. Really, how will television be forced to change in five to 10 years if my son is buying media? Television is a non-commercial medium for my son, tolerable only as a platform for movie channels, sports and Playstation, for which it is simply a monitor. Can an industry that big adjust in five to 10 years? It is so little time.

Reading elsewhere, I thumbed through the annual list of the world’s billionaires in Forbes magazine, recently, and was gratified to note that most of the top 100 made their fortunes in media. The wait may sometimes be long, but the result, it would seem, can be considerable. Scrolling through the list of those media tycoons it was easy to recall the stories in the media and advertising trade journals of how many of them nearly went broke over the years. Ted Turner nearly went under four times, as the legend goes. Rupert Murdoch’s back was against the wall numerous times. Today, their companies are locked in a struggle for dominance of the 24-hour news business. Where once it was a struggle for acceptance, it is now a struggle for dominance. So it will also be online.

Jarvis Coffin is a co-founder of Internet advertising services company BURST! Media.

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